In August 1972, when Idi Amin came to power, he ordered the expulsion of thousands of Ugandans of South Asian descent. Most had lived in the country for generations, many having come in the 19th century to help build the British railroad.
The dictator gave them 90 days to leave.
In an instant, on the whim of a madman, 80,000 Ugandans found themselves without a country.
This story forms part of the collective narrative of Tasneem Jamal’s debut novel, Where the Air is Sweet, the compelling tale of one family’s struggle in the years before and after this forced exodus.
It is 1921 and Raju, a young man from India, arrives in colonial Uganda, hungry for a better life. Like so many of his contemporaries, he thrives. With his wife, his many children, and his successful businesses, the roots he plants in this new country grow into a home.
But when Uganda gains independence in the 1960s, racial lines between the Asians and the Africans are seen in a new light. Though relatively new to the country, the Asians have enjoyed a position of privilege, their African neighbours occupying subordinate positions in their businesses and in their houses. The networks the Asian Ugandans have created are suddenly threatened by a country’s growing resentment, fuelled by the leadership of a tyrant.
Amin believes the Asians have exploited and monopolized the economy. Forced to flee, many Asians seek refuge in England and other European countries willing to take them. But, for those who are not under British protection, North America becomes the only viable option. A close-knit community is suddenly divided.
Also divided is Raju’s family. His son, Jaafar, is determined not to relinquish his money, his home and his possessions, a path that leads him into corruption. Jaafar’s wife, Mumtaz, is trapped by the traditional patriarchy of her homeland and must challenge the rules of convention in order to keep her family together. Where the Air is Sweet is a story of family, but it is also a story of rights — the rights of women, the rights of citizens, the rights of humanity.
Jamal does an exemplary job of exposing readers to a terrifying incident of ethnic cleansing of which far too few are aware. She effortlessly slips in details that paint the picture of an uneasy political climate, referencing real-life people, places and events that drive this multi-generational saga from Mbarara, Uganda, to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. then back to Kampala.